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Friday, February 03, 2006

Translating rhetorical questions

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he used about 100 rhetorical questions. Unlike real questions whose purpose is to obtain information, the purpose of rhetorical questions is to convey information. According to Dr. Paul Ellingworth in The Bible Translator (published by the United Bible Societies), a positive rhetorical question is usually equivalent to a strong negative statement:

What soldier ever has to pay his own expenses in the army? I Corinthians 9:7 (TEV)
No soldier ever has to pay his own expense.
On the other hand, a negative rhetorical question usually equals a strong positive statement:

Am I not a free man? I Corinthians 9:1 (TEV)
I certainly am a free man.
A rhetorical question can sometimes be misunderstood or misinterpreted as a real question. For example, the reader may think that Paul’s rhetorical question Who then is Paul? (I Corinthians 3:5) is a real question to seek information about another person named Paul.

Paul used 15 rhetorical questions in I Corinthians 9:1-12, four in a row in verse one, and eight in a row in verses 4-8. This frequency is much greater than many English readers are accustomed to and can be a distraction from the focus of the text.

To avoid misunderstanding, misinterpretation of rhetorical questions as real ones, and distraction from the focus of a text, I’ve translated most rhetorical questions as statements in The Better Life Bible.
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At Fri Feb 03, 12:18:00 PM, Blogger Christopher Heard said...

Dan, I sometimes do some exegetical consulting for Bible translators, and the group I work with is generally in favor of translating rhetorical questions as statements, or adding one-word sentences that answer the question (e.g., "No").

One question I have, though. Do you have any suggestions for how to determine with a high degree of certainty whether a given question is in fact rhetorical, as opposed to a genuine information-seeking question? Some are obvious, but perhaps others are not so obvious.

At Fri Feb 03, 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Dan, for native speakers of English, I think that many rhetorical questions, in natural contexts, can be quite powerful. For speakers of many other languages, there may be few, if any , rhetorical questions.

I appreciate what you've done in the BLB, making the rhetorical meaning as clear as possible. Did you have any way of determining which rhetorical questions the BLB audience would have difficulty understanding as RQs?

At Sat Feb 04, 07:55:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Chris, for which group of Bible translators do you do some consulting (just curious)?

The only suggestion I have for how to determine whether a given question is rhetorical or information-seeking is to consider its context, as Beekman and Callow point out in "Translating the Word of God". But I'm sure you're already doing that. Sorry I can't offer more.

At Sat Feb 04, 09:59:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

> Did you have any way of determining which rhetorical questions the BLB audience would have difficulty understanding as RQs?

Great question, Wayne. But it's basically a moot one, since I've translated every rhetorical question so far (I think) as a statement. It may be significant that none of my target audience have mentioned that they missed RQs in my translation.


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